We are accustomed to seeing people of all religions and belief systems actively engaged in the practice of their faith. This usually comes in the form of attending a service at a specific church or temple of worship. They may also wear certain clothing items that denote their affiliation. Some even have the requirement of stopping multiple times throughout the day to pray.
In short, such actions are overt and visible. So why don’t we see Taoists wearing… Tao clothes and going to Tao temples and doing Tao prayers?
Well, we can see that if we live in mainland China. Sort of. Taoism has been woven into the folk religion of that country that also takes on aspects of Confucianism and Hinduism. There are temples and gods and altars with candles to light and rituals to partake in. It is quite visual and active.
But is this Taoism?
Since Taoism is more a philosophy than a religion, it can be difficult for most people to understand its nuances, let alone to follow something so complex and esoteric.
When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
— Tao Te Ching, Chapter 41
At the risk of sounding unkind, most people do not live a sufficiently reflective and refined life to embrace Taoism. It is challenging to engage in a belief system that offers no community, no temple, no clothes, no rituals, no gods and no hierarchy of priests to instruct us. Taoism is not relegated to an hour’s effort on Sunday morning and then conveniently forgotten until next week. It is instead a moment to moment practice. Therefore, in the West, we are lucky to even find a few others with us on the path.
So how does a Taoist practice his or her belief system? By constantly refining the self.
Taoists believe in maintaining good health through proper diet and physical fitness. They believe in vitality, supporting the energies of the body by not engaging in drugs or alcohol nor frittering away hardiness through other indulgences. (Remember, moderation in all things.) Therefore, daily exercise in proportion to one’s ability is mandatory. This can be Tai Chi, Qigong or a glorious walk in the sunshine. Moreover, every meal is comprised of healthy vegetables, fruits, meats and grains to support the body and mind.
Taoists take time to turn inward, so daily meditation is a requisite, if even for ten minutes. This pause centers the self and teaches us to be in the moment. We can’t always control our thoughts, but we strive to ensure our thoughts don’t control us.
Taoists are also required to learn not only skills but also intellectual topics through the reading of scholarly writings meant to challenge the mind. A Taoist is a refined person, so being better educated and more highly skilled in crafting is an expectation.
The arts are part of a Taoist’s practice. A Taoist will expose him or herself to music, art, poetry and architecture of the highest quality to see the best humanity has created. They will also partake in the effort to the degree their skill level allows for their own edification and to better appreciate the masters.
Finally, a Taoist is attuned to nature. Taoists do not feel the need to build a temple, as all of outdoors serves that purpose. You would be hard pressed to find a more refined Taoist than a farmer, a person who lives and works so close to nature that he or she becomes part of the natural cycle. While we cannot all be farmers by profession, we must spend time in nature and be mindful in those moments — “mindful” being defined as aware and undistracted. Walking a path in the woods is useless if our thoughts are occupied with problems or we are disturbed by technology devices we refuse to leave behind.
Suddenly spending an hour in church on Sunday mornings seems tame in relation to the expectations of cultivating and following the Tao.
Engaging in actions that push you towards becoming a refined person is an ongoing effort that has no temple, no timeframe and no mindless rituals to partake in. But while it is not easy, it does place you on the path to a full and rewarding existence.